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McCain: President’s Call for Action as Well as Pause Hurts His Case on Syria

September 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., praised President Obama for appealing to the emotions of the American people in his Syria speech, but felt the president fell short by not advocating for the Syrian rebels. In a conversation with Gwen Ifill, McCain also considers whether Russian efforts to help reach a diplomatic solution are sincere.
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GWEN IFILL: The president’s speech has delayed, but not diminished the Syria debate on the international stage and on Capitol Hill. Even some who support pursuing both military action and diplomacy still have more questions than answers.

One of those is Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Senator McCain, thank you for joining us.

So, assuming that the president last night tried to do two things, sell diplomacy and sell military action, did he accomplish either?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: I think he was able to appeal to the emotions of the American people, and I think he was very eloquent in talking about the tragedies that have been caused by this war and by Bashar Assad.

I don’t think he made a strong case, because I think he was trying to sell the idea of attacks, but at the same time saying that we have to pause. I think that perhaps it might have been more effective if he had waited a couple of days to see how this whole Russia option plays out.

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And, finally, I was saddened that he didn’t mention of our need to support the Free Syrian Army, because he himself two years ago said that Bashar Assad had to leave office. And we know the only way that he’s going to leave is if he believes that he’s not going to win in the battlefield.

GWEN IFILL: I want to get back to you on the Free Syrian Army question, but first I want to ask you about what you just said about the Russia option.

Do you believe that the Russia option can succeed, that the meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart, his Russian counterpart, is going to yield something?

JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I don’t quite understand why John Kerry has to go to Geneva to meet with Lavrov. Why shouldn’t Lavrov come to New York, where the U.N. Security Council is meeting, so we can expedite this process?

Remember, the Russians have been supplying Syria for many, many years. And, recently, as of as least a year ago, the Russian support stepped up dramatically as far as weapons are concerned. And so one has to question whether the Russians are really sincere in this effort.

And it doesn’t give you confidence when President Putin says, well, the United States has to renounce all use of violence. That is, obviously, unacceptable. But this has to be played out, Gwen. It has to be, at least for a period of time — I hope a short period of time — but you cannot ignore it.

GWEN IFILL: You are in frequent contact with people in the Free Syrian resistance. Do you know how they reacted to last night’s speech?

JOHN MCCAIN: Oh, they’re — they’re terribly dispirited.

They’re still courageous, and they will still fight on, but they — it was a real blow to their morale. They were hoping that the president would at least make reference to increased assistance to them. He assured people, Americans, that no boots on the ground, but he said to Senator Graham and to me that he would be very favorable to — in fact, wanted to increase assistance to the Free Syrian Army.

GWEN IFILL: He also assured people last night that America wouldn’t be the world’s cop. Is what you’re — you have been arguing consistently that there be very muscular action taken to basically engage the U.S. in the Syrian civil war. Isn’t that making the U.S. the world’s cop?

JOHN MCCAIN: Well, first of all, I understand and the president understands that Americans are weary, and they really are not going to allow this country to get into another conflict that leads to the risk of American lives.

So I don’t think I or anyone else rational that I know believes that we should in any way put a single American into harm’s way. What activities we do advocate have to do with standoff weaponry that would cripple his air force, take out some of their capabilities.

But, having said that, this has turned into a regional conflict. We have seen the terrible deterioration of events in Iraq. We have seen Lebanon destabilized, and we have seen the king of Jordan basically jeopardize his position of remaining in power.

So this has become a regional conflict, and one which is of the priority that has grown rather dramatically from what was initially just a fight against Bashar Assad.

GWEN IFILL: If Russia does come to the table and says, sure, we will take over the control of the Syrian chemical weapons stash, and we will be able to control it and we will make Syria sign a chemical weapons agreement, but we don’t want any threat of military action, is that acceptable to you?

JOHN MCCAIN: No.

First of all, I think it would have to be a whole lot more people than just the Russians. It’s got to be an international, U.N.-sponsored effort. It can’t be just Russians. That’s just not credible, given the fact that the Russians have given them so many weapons for so many years.

But the United States still cannot renounce the use of force, because suppose that Bashar Assad, even though he is getting rid of his chemical weapons, uses other weapons, commits other atrocities. I mean, you just can’t do that.

So that would still be not viable for the United States to renounce action, when we know that if this — if it was progressing in a satisfactory fashion, the removal of those chemical weapons, the United States wouldn’t have a reason to use violence.

GWEN IFILL: So, if this comes back to Congress, if for some reason the diplomatic track peters how, how do you change minds in the Senate, even among your own party, and how do you change Americans’ minds about the wisdom of getting involved?

JOHN MCCAIN: I think it’s a tough slog. I think you would have to identify more with American national security interests. You should — particularly the threat to Israel of us doing nothing and the encouragement of Iran of us doing nothing.

I think we have to make the case, which I think the president could, if the Russian initiative turns out to be a false one, that he’s tried every possible other option. I think he could also argue that perhaps one of the reasons why the Russians sought this, at least this path to go on, was the fear of American military action.

So it will be hard. It will be very difficult to achieve, but then the president’s going to be faced with a very difficult decision. Should he act on his own?

GWEN IFILL: Senator John McCain of Arizona, thanks again for joining us.

JOHN MCCAIN: Thank you, Gwen.